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Paul Auster: "I use my own life as an example"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, Winter Journal, is a memoir of sorts – as was your first prose book, The Invention of Solitude. Was that earlier work on your mind when you were writing this one?
Not really but I do see the connection over 30 years later. Some people have called them “bookends”.

They’re linked in some way because the subject is similar but the approach is completely different in this new book. Stylistically, they’ve nothing in common, though perhaps emotionally they do.

You used the word “bookends” – but presumably this book isn’t the end for you?
No, this isn’t the end! By “winter”, I simply mean that I’ve entered a new season. And I hope it’s a long and fruitful season. But it is, mathematically, the last quarter of my life and there’s nothing to be done about that.

It looks as though you’re entering that final quarter with something like equanimity.
What’s the choice? You’ve got to make the best of your lot.

Like The Invention of Solitude, this book was written in the shadow of the death of a parent.
Yes, although in the case of the first book I started writing it just two weeks after my father died. Whereas, with this book, I didn’t write about my mother until almost nine years after she died. It’s a big lag.

Death keeps coming back in the book in different guises. It’s not as if I feel obsessed by the prospect of my own death but one does tend to think about it more when you reach the age of 60-plus – it’s just inevitable. I didn’t want to treat it morbidly but it just kept looming.

Is writing a book like this a holiday from writing fiction for you? ~
No. It’s a different enterprise. You’re calling on different parts of yourself. But, you know, the effort to write a good sentence is the same. All the things that have to do with the writing are identical.

Siri [Hustvedt], my wife, has gotten deeply involved in neuroscience and has taught me a lot about our brains. It seems that memory and imagination are almost identical. Writing a novel, you’re also remembering things from your life. And writing an autobiographical work, you’re also inventing. You’re doing your best to retrieve things but at times it’s a bit murky. As you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it’s almost as if you’re imagining it at the same time.

That’s a very 18th-century idea – that memory and imagination are intimately connected. It’d be interesting if it turned out that modern neuroscience had corroborated the insights of the poets. 
Exactly. You read The Iliad and Homer is invoking the goddess of memory, not the goddess of imagination.

In the book, you catalogue fairly obsessively various physical pleasures and pains, aspects of being alive that writers don’t often pay so much attention to.
It’s true, not too many people write about [those things].

The funny thing about writing about oneself is that I’m not very interested in myself. I use my own life as an example of what it means to be human. I just think of myself as anyone or everyone.

I’m trying to share my experience with others as a way of establishing some kind of common humanity. What does it feel like to be alive? Isn’t that what all writers are trying to do?

You write about baseball at some length in this book. What is it with American writers and baseball?
It’s funny, I got a call recently from the baseball writer who covers the New York Mets for the Daily News. He’s been reading my books for years and he wanted to sit down and watch a baseball game with me and write an article about it. So he came last night to our house and we sat and watched the game and talked about baseball all night. And it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time.

Talking to this man, Andy Martino, I realised how deeply passionate I still feel about the game and how beautiful I find it. There are such exquisite geometries and such unexpected turns of events. It’s a game of very little violence, a contemplative game. Baseball is beautiful in that you can see what’s happening all the time.

Paul Auster’s “Winter Journal” is published by Faber & Faber (£17.99).

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis